In the calendar of the Western church, the day after Christmas, has been celebrated in honour of the first martyr Stephen. Much has been made of how this feast together with those which follow shed light on the meaning of the Incarnation, something most certainly true but which is due just to happenstance. The happenstance is fitting, for the reality of the matter is that the appearance of the binding for ever of human flesh to God, to the unknowable, to the unspeakable and unfathomable God, is not always welcome. Joy to the world, for the world, the chasm between our state and God is bridged, but from the beginning the response has been more than feckless, it has been murderous. Not simple disbelief, but fear and hate.
Stephen who is he? He is a Greek Jew, one of the seven whom the church appointed to go out and to minister to the poor widows and to make known the good news of Jesus Christ; they were Aramaic and Hebrew speakers mainly, those chosen were a minority, ethnically and culturally. At least one was a convert. Stephen is a minority ethnic Jew. One might indeed say that what kick starts the mission of the church to the non-Jewish world, is indeed a witness, but equally the witness of one of an ethnic minority.
Stephen’s mission arises out of a disagreement; the minority feels slighted and the church responds by making amends for the slight and giving the seven, a high profile role. Stephen is full of the Spirit and his following the way of Christ, the signs and miracles he does, provoke his fellow Jews, also diaspora Jews.
Stephen begins by doing things which are at home, looking after the widows; doing something which contributes to resolving a disagreement but which leads to a more exposed place. Stephen lets rip, yet though his opponents are angry, it is only when the heavens are opened and he says what he sees, that the hate of fear turns them into his killers. He sees
the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
It is a pivotal moment; for Stephen announces human flesh bound to God, the Son of Man standing next to God, not seated, and next to the glory, to the unknowable, to the unspeakable and unfathomable God. This is what provokes the others to murder. Stephen’s witness, before a Sanhedrin, like Jesus; full of the Spirit like Jesus; taken outside the city like Jesus; giving up his spirit and forgiving his killers, both like Jesus; is all geared to showing us what this new world of the incarnation does. It is not an imitation of Jesus though certainly a likeness and it puts into action the form of Jesus; what happens when the needle meets the LP record and the music sounds, when the play is produced on a new stage, something already full of life, which shows it is not a one off. This is divinity not to be grasped, ‘being found in human form, humbling himself’. Not revenge as called for by Zechariah son of Jehoiada, not even just retribution, but forgiveness is tendered, divine forgiveness bound to human humility.
Stephen’s vision shows that what takes flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary, most blessed be she, is at the heart of what it is to be God; full of grace and truth. His death shows that the same love which gave birth and life to Jesus, is something which is not confined to a Christmas crib, long ago, but is to be repeated but differently, in all manner of diversity.
The love of God, the love which is uniquely and without limit in Jesus, that sustains the life, witness and death of Stephen, it is a love which keeps him faithful to God; it is the love of his neighbour, fellow Jews which leads him to communicate the truth about Jesus, a love which when it is rejected, forgives them their fear and hate.
A witness like Stephen – perhaps especially Stephen – may seem rather remote, something almost heroic; yet that is to ignore the journey which goes to make a witness to death. Given the disagreement out of which his profile arose, given his exposed status as minority ethnic it is not ridiculous to think of a final witness which would have been nothing had not over time Stephen coped with a fair number of knocks and shakes. He was not perfect – he gets things wrong and his speech is long, boy is it long. Those who face great trials – and many of our fellow Christians do – then as now, face them not as clear simplicities but as pettinesses, annoyances which grow and fall, the importunity of friends inflict on them creeping and incessant; they gradually come to believe that the world is not so wrong as some say it is, and that it is possible to be over-strict and over-nice. This is not to gainsay the significance of death and forgiveness accepted at the end; but there can be few such witnesses which have not been the issue of dull tedious petulance, patiently endured. Stephen is unique – a vision, a confession of the glory of the God- human, which is at great cost – but the way of witness is open to all who follow, often tedious, rarely to violent death, but something which is the length of life more often than a moment, a length full of grace and truth, no brief span, but something God has taken never to lay it by